He may be too humble to admit it, but Alan Doyle is becoming quite the Renaissance man. Already known and beloved as a vocalist and spinner of musical yarns, first for 20 years with Great Big Sea and since then as a solo act, he has also acted in major motion pictures (including Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), iconic Canadian television series such as Republic of Doyle and Murdoch Mysteries, and now has two critically and popularly acclaimed books to his credit.
After all this talent and hard work laid bare, the eminently personable, down to earth and authentically humble Doyle chalks it all up to good luck, good fortune but also a Newfoundlander’s seemingly innate drive to work hard and work honest to make the most of all situations in life.
The latest book, A Newfoundlander In Canada: Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home, was released in October by Doubleday Canada, and follows on the heels of his first work, a folksy and insightful autobiographical work about his early days growing up in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland called Where I Belong, which came out in October of 2015.
At the same time, he also released his third album, A Week at the Warehouse, which saw Doyle and his band take a more frenetic and live-off-the-floor approach. After doing an extensive book tour in the fall, Doyle is now set to hit the road for dates across Canada and parts of the United States, well into spring.
He admits that even though A Newfoundlander in Canada was his second book, the process of writing a book evokes more trepidation and angst in him than any of his other creative endeavours.
“It’s kind of terrifying writing books because it’s unlike everything else I do in my life, which is primarily live performance and music and all that stuff. With a book, there’s no ability to change it halfway through if you realize people don’t like it. You have to do it in its totality and shove it out there and then you go, ‘oh shit, what if people don’t care?’ But I was delighted with the positive response and that people are interested in seeing what Canada looked like to a fella from a little fishing town on the edge of the country out the window of a band van,” he said, adding that it was a very positive experience reliving the early days of a band which – at least for the time being – is on permanent hiatus since 2013.
“It was a totally, completely joyous experience to look back on those days because for those days of Great Big Sea were such a journey of discovery for all of us. And none of us could believe our luck that we got a chance to do it – to play music all across the country. We all wanted to travel, we all wanted to play music and we were getting the chance to do it.
“And luckily for all four of us [Doyle, Bob Hallett, Sean McCann and Darrell Power] we just got to do it at the perfect time in our lives. We weren’t so young that it was going to wreck us if it didn’t pan out. But we were young enough to handle the 14-hour drives in the back of a rental station wagon. We had all just graduated from university, we just put our adult lives on pause for a second to have a run at being a band and just never looked back. And for the whole first half of Great Big Sea’s career there were a lot of struggles, but it was just a constant state of discovery and curiosity that was fulfilled.”
The book is part brothers-in-arms road trip adventure, part travelogue and part love letter to both Newfoundland and Canada – and also delves a bit into the role of Newfoundland, and a Newfoundlander, within Canada. There was no coincidence that the book came out during the 150th anniversary of Confederation either.
“The thing I took from the whole collection of stories and going across the country was that Newfoundland was a brand new place in this country. And there’s a reason why physically and sort of politically and even as part of the pop culture of the country that we felt like we were brand new and on the outside for a while,” Doyle said. (Newfoundland held out joining Canada until 1949.)
“We were far away from everything, so we were joining a country that was pretty well established and without knowing it, we were joining what was probably the best one in the world to join. Because we joined a country that allowed us to keep all our traditions and all our ways of life and accents and stuff, and also encouraged and celebrated them.
“It’s amazing that a regional thing like Great Big Sea could become as popular in a country as big as Canada as we became. And that says as much about the people of Canada as it does about Great Big Sea.”
It also says something about both Canadian music lovers and Doyle himself that he has carried on from his Great Big Sea days, with a solo career that also sees him selling out venues to rapturous acclaim by both critics and fans alike.
For his third solo album, A Week at The Warehouse, which also came out in the fall, Doyle wanted to capture the feel of his band in a live setting (minus the whoops, hollers and clinking of bottles and glasses) and did just that, with an incendiary, live-off-the-floor vibe that captures both the undeniable energy but also the superlative musicianship of his band. The title refers to the amount of time he booked in Vancouver’s famous studio The Warehouse, which is essentially the home studio for producing legend Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi, The Cult, Tragically Hip, Jann Arden).
“I wanted people to listen to this record and get a great picture of what an Alan Doyle concert looks like these days, because the live touring band is so good, and the show is such a cool mix of influences, from all the old stuff I’ve always loved, the Celtic music and traditional music, with the fiddles and all that stuff. But there’s also tinges of rock and roll and country and is really just a broad portrait of all the stuff I like.,” he said.
“And there are risks in every method of doing an album. One of the gambles you take when you book a certain period of time to record an album like we did is that you won’t get it right. That’s the risk that there is no time for rethinking things and pausing to take stock. No, you’re setting everybody up, you’re pushing a red button and you’re going for it. And then you sit down a week later and go, ‘oh great we got it,’ or ‘oh shit, we didn’t.’ Fortunately, when we sat down a week later, after running the stuff for a week, there was nothing but smiles in the room. And that’s the payoff, that’s the reward. This album is like a slice of life; it’s a bunch of musicians in a room working on songs over a short period of time. It’s not something that was completely considered, and reconsidered, and refocused and re-planned and remixed.”
Doyle said he wanted a producer who had experience doing that sort of recording process, and Rock was at the top of his wish list.
“I started going through producers that I knew of that still did records like that, and there’s not many. For most guys now it’s one guy in a room with a laptop. And I didn’t want to do it that way. I wanted to do it old school. And I thought of Bob Rock immediately because I know that he can do that. I talked to my manager about approaching Bob and seeing if he would be interested but then I quickly remembered that he is good friends with Jann Arden and Jann is a hero of mine. So I contacted Jann and said, ‘Jann, I think I would like to get Bob Rock to listen to a couple of these demos that I have. Do you think you could connect me with his manager or something like that?’ She said she was talking to him the next day,” he said.
“And I I’ll never forget it. I was driving up Torbay Road in St. John’s to get my kid at school and my phone rang next to me in the car and I looked over and it said Bob Rock on the display. I pulled into a gas station, answered the phone and said ‘hello.’ He said, ‘is this Alan?’ And I said ‘yeah.’ ‘This is Bob Rock, Jann Arden told me to call you and I am not about to piss off Jann Arden.’ So that’s how it started.”
While many music fans first think of Rock’s work with big acts like Metallica and Bon Jovi, for Canadians of a certain vintage he first came to prominence alongside songwriting partner and vocalist Paul Hyde as a member of early 1980s New Wave act The Payolas, and later in the decade working as Rock & Hyde.
“And the funny thing is, when I think of Bob Rock, that’s what I think of: Paul Hyde and the Payolas. That’s my first memory of him and I remember hearing Paul’s singing and over the years realizing how Celtic influenced Paul’s stuff is, coming from the British Isles and everything. And I remember talking to Bob about the Metallica stuff the first time we met, and he said, ‘well I just picked the songs for that album that were the most like Celtic songs.’ And I was like, what? And he said, ‘think about Enter Sandman; it’s a fairy tale.’ I was like, holy shit, Enter Sandman is a fairy tale.”
The songs on A Week at the Warehouse are as advertised – a wonderful blend of Doyle’s influences, all underpinned by his unmistakable voice and the potent energy of his band. There is raucousness, sentimentality and even a surprisingly potent social justice message for the song Beautiful to Me.
“It is a political one, which is very unusual for me. There was this bill brought forward a couple of years ago down in the Carolinas or some place like that, and it was known as the Bathroom Bill. And it was totally targeting members of the LBGT community and people undergoing or considering gender reassignment and how people chose to present themselves. And the bill limited access to what bathroom they might use here or there. And it all seemed so regressive and backward and targeted and mean and it just f***ing pissed me off to be honest with you,” he said.
“And I don’t know why, but I was compelled to write this song with a buddy of mine early the next day. And, well, this is my message to that community and any other community on the edge of the masses and the mainstream – my doors are open, and you are welcome here and this is a place where you can come and be yourself and you don’t need to be anybody else. I am not concerned with what you choose to make that look like, it’s up to you.”
Another compositional highlight is Somewhere in A Song, which is an ode to the resiliency of Newfoundlanders, in particular his parents back in Petty Harbour.
“We often ran out of oil in the furnace in Petty Harbour, and as I say in a story from my first book, we often ran out of oil because we had no money. And it became a cause for great celebration and that was the kind of house I grew up in, where we would gather in the kitchen and put on the stove to stay warm and we would just sing some songs and play cards and have a grand old time. It wasn’t until I was an adult of course, looking back on that time, that I realized what a great coping mechanism that was by my folks to make something fun and good out of something bad. And I am so grateful to them for that,” Doyle said, admitting that he too follows many of the same fundamental life tenets as his parents.
“My parents were and remain completely, 100 per cent concerned with making the most of what you do have and exactly zero per cent about whining about what you don’t have. That’s exactly my mom and dad. I am so grateful to have that in my life.”
Doyle is also grateful for his band, which he dubs The Beautiful Gypsies, comprised of some of the most talented and accomplished musicians in the nation.
“It’s a dream team. For anybody who knows anything about the Canadian music scene, it’s just a dream team. Every musician I know in the country wants to get on my bus because they are so amazing as musicians and singers, but they’re great people too – just a wicked hang. Kris MacFarlane is the first call drummer east of Montreal for the last decade and a half. He played with Great Big Sea of course and Crush, Denny Doherty and on and on. He’s just an incredible musician,” he said.
“And Shehab Illyas is a wonderful artist who directs movies and videos and he played bass in a band with his brother Asif called Mir, an incredible band out of Halifax. He’s done a bunch of movie scores too and is just amazing. Todd Lumley plays Hammond and piano and accordion for us. Most people would know him as Mr. Lonely from Hawksley Workman’s band for the last decade or so, but I first met him years and years ago when he was playing in one of my favourite Canadian bands, The Waltons.
“And then of course Cory Tetford plays guitar and sings. Cory is a Newfoundlander and I have known him for most of my adult life. Cory played in a band called Crush and had some great success as a side guy with many other bands like Damhnait Doyle’s and countless others. He is one of the most talented singers and guitar players I know. And the band is rounded out by the lovely and talented Kendel Carson, who people will know from playing with Spirit of the West. She plays fiddle primarily, but she also plays guitar and sings. I first saw Kendel when she was a teenager with a band called The Paperboys. In the world of fiddles that I grew up in, Kendel is the best fiddle player I have ever seen anywhere in the world. I just think I am a very lucky person to get to hang with those folks every day, to be honest with you.”
Fans throughout Canada will get a chance to hang with Doyle and his band, starting Feb. 20 at Showplace Peterborough, followed by shows in Kitchener, Kingston, Montreal, Toronto and then Ottawa on Feb. 25, before a stint in some U.S. border states, before returning for a western Canadian swing that begins March 4 in Winnipeg and wraps up March 10 in Vancouver. A run in the Maritimes happens in early May.
For more information on A Week at the Warehouse, the forthcoming tour and the book A Newfoundlander in Canada, visit www.alandoyle.ca.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHARE THIS POST: